By Liz Biro
Brothers Joe and Sam Romano, top and center, teamed with childhood friend Nathan King to chase a dream of fishing for a living and selling their catch. Photos: Seaview Crab Co.
WILMINGTON — The sledge hammer he uses to pound through a thick concrete floor racks Sam Romano’s body like that of a man experiencing religious ecstasy. When the tool’s roaring ceases, Romano, hair wild in all directions, looks up, shakes off the madness and smiles a rapturous grin.
Surrounded by thick concrete floors and walls in a huge, mostly gutted building, Romano has much work to do, which makes him happy. This old seafood market he and his business partners – brother Joe Romano and friend Nathan King — are restoring in Wilmington proves the team’s mantra: If you sell good, fresh, local seafood, customers will come – especially if they don’t have to drive.
Just five years after deciding to apply their college degrees to commercial fishing and seafood retail operations that started from the back of a truck they parked along roadsides, the trio is readying their second brick-and-mortar Seaview Crab Co. seafood market in Wilmington and watching interest grow in their innovative online sales segment.
“We were just talking recently about what we’re about and why we’re so successful,” Sam Romano says. “It’s just about connecting people to what’s around them locally.”
Rather than lament water pollution, declining seafood stocks and too many regulations — constant commercial fishing industry stressors – as well as long days and hard work, the Romano brothers and King relish the future.
“That’s the one thing that draws me to it (fishing) — the challenge,” Joe Romano says. “We can make it when others say we can’t.”
Childhood friends from Virginia Beach, Va., the threesome’s crabbing life began when Sam Romano about 10 years ago entered the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, where he earned an environmental studies degree. During school, he worked at the old seafood house that the business partners are restoring, but Sam Romano preferred crabbing, a part-time job he watched his father do.
He convinced his brother Joe, who holds a masters degree in English and was a real estate broker at the time, to join him for crabbing around Wilmington.
Meantime, King was earning a master’s in naval architecture and ocean engineering, but he spent college summers living and crabbing with the Romanos. Working the water was enjoyable; access to the fishing life was easy.
“It was really an ideal business that you could start from the ground with simply 50 pots,” King says.
The men at first sold crabs wholesale, but declining prices convinced them to court the public directly.
After peddling their catch from pick-up trucks near Fayetteville and on Carolina Beach Road in Wilmington, the partners in the spring of 2009 launched their first Seaview Crab Co.
The trio will retain the 6458 Carolina Beach Rd. store when their second, much larger location opens this spring. The 6,500-square-foot building they purchased is at 1515 Marstellar St.
A third of the new building will be dedicated retail space, offering N.C. fish, shellfish and live crabs. Sam Romano gets excited thinking about children being able to see live crabs in a tank.
Other areas hosting massive coolers and freezers will serve the storage and wholesale aspects of the business. Later, one section may host a weekly market for restaurant chefs and owners, Sam Romano said.
“We’re envisioning this as more of an everybody-and-anybody market,” Sam Romano said.
The first Seaview Crab Co. opened on Carolina Beach Road, top, and will expand this spring to a second location in a remodeled fish house on Marstellar St. Photos: Liz Biro
Sixty-to-80-hour work weeks take a toll, but King and the Romano brothers stay inspired to drive Seaview into the future.
They regularly announce their fresh catch on social media, including Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. At the company website, consumers find educational videos about fishing and seafood. They may also sign up for Seaview’s “Wilmington Fresh Seafood Update” newsletter delivered via email and also on Facebook. The publication spotlights what’s available from North Carolina waters, how much it costs and how to cook it.
The business partners are also expanding a shipping operation that provides overnight delivery of fresh seafood to all of North Carolina, southern Virginia and most of South Carolina.
“I don’t think any of us really thought we’d be doing this right now,” Joe Romano says. “This whole business…everything a lot of times is against you, whether you’re a fishermen or selling seafood or whatever.
“Each struggle has kind of got us more into it. We kind of reach a brick wall and we’re kind of, well, let’s innovate.”
Yet the men don’t consider themselves new-age fishermen. In fact, they still operate a small roadside seafood stand on weekends near Fayetteville and host home-style seafood feasts to show their appreciation to friends, customers and fellow fishermen. They, as most watermen, are can-do people merely flowing with the tide toward the best catch, Sam Romano says
“Fishermen are capable of what we’re talking about, actually more capable than a lot of other different vocations because when you’re fishing,” he says, “you’ve got to be able to change your mindset.”